While the Second World War was not a conflict that I would say is pivotal in Irish history, relative to things like the Eleven Year Wars or the 1798 Rebellion or the Irish revolutionary period, it is still too large of an event to let my “coverage” of it to pass by without offering some final thoughts. As per the manner in which I have approached the war, I will do so through the lens of four different strands: Ireland at a diplomatic level, the IRA, hypothetical war plans and the larger war itself.
Ireland’s course of neutrality during the war will always provoke strong debate on its morality and necessity. Speaking from a purely realpolitik viewpoint, there was very little to recommend Irish participation in the war formally, with the country lacking requisitely strong diplomatic reasons to join the Allies, or just cause to take up arms against Germany (in terms of being attacked themselves). Speaking from a perspective on ability, Irish participation in the war would have added precious little to the Allies’ strength, and after 1941 the country also had a greatly reduced ability to impact the war through geographical resources. The governments decision to stay neutral resulted in endless criticism on the grounds that the Nazis deserved to be fought by as united a front as possible, and there is merit in this. But in the context of the time, in the context of what Ireland had, and especially in the context of Ireland’s recent history and geopolitical realities, the decision to stay neutral is both understandable and, as annoyed as it might make some people, justifiable. Ireland did stray dangerously close to breaking that neutrality at times in the manner in which it provided subtle and overt assistance to the Allies, but overall the course steered was one that did what was needed to keep Ireland out of the war, despite the immense pressures applied by the UK and United States. It wasn’t always easy, and Eamon de Valera didn’t always make it easy for himself and Ireland. But as a reflection of Irish sovereignty, the neutrality policy of the Second World War served a vitally important purpose. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that maintaining that neutrality is one of the great successes, from his perspective anyway, of de Valera’s lengthy period in office.
It’s in that vein that I think I should discuss the back-and-forth that took place between Winston Churchill and Eamon de Valera as the war concluded. In a speech given on 13th May 1945, Churchill took the opportunity to aim a very directed swipe at Irish neutrality saying, among other things, that “we never laid a violent hand upon them, which at times would have been quite easy and quite natural”: essentially telling de Valera that Britain would have been justified in militarily occupying Ireland, said with the tone of a man who felt he should be congratulated for ignoring the impulse. De Valera’s reply, that Churchill allegedly admitted got de Valera the better of the exchange, has become semi-legendary in Irish circles as a powerful riposte to British imperialism, and a defence of Irish nationhood: placing Ireland’s cause next to that of other small nations, de Valera asked “could he not find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone, not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression…a small nation that could never be got to accept defeat and has never surrendered her soul?” Coming only weeks after his blunder at the German embassy, the speech re-asserted de Valera as Ireland’s premier statesman, and forms a poignant defence of Irish neutrality.
For the Irish Republican Army, the Second World War was an immense opportunity, a time of crisis where they had the chance to once again became a pre-dominant player in Irish affairs, and to strike at a hated enemy who was otherwise occupied. To that end, the organisation attempted its bombing campaign in the UK, struck against targets within Ireland and made links with Nazi Germany. But it all came to naught. In some instances it was down to sheer happenstance, such as with the death of Sean Russell as he made his way back to Ireland from Germany, a key moment in precipitating the later leadership crisis that so crippled the IRA’s efforts. In others it was just a consequence of a lack of manpower, lack of arms, lack of commitment, and an inability with all of these handicaps to deal with the growing pressures of Irish and Northern Irish law enforcement responses. The IRA ended the Second World War in a much worse state than it had entered it, non-existent in large parts of the island and struggling just to keep going in some way, shape or form.
As for a moral judgement, the IRA’s efforts to form an alliance with Nazi Germany obviously looks very damning with hindsight. The full extent of the crimes of Hitler and his regime were not fully apparent when these efforts were made, but what was clear was the racism, aggressive territorial expansion and stamping out of basic democratic rights. Sean Russell and others perhaps entered into such arrangements with the mantra that their enemies enemy must be their friend, but that does not fully absolve them in the eyes of history. The Nazis were no great allies of Irish republicanism, only pursuing such things as much as it suited them, and without great amounts of efforts even when it did.
In the course of the last two dozen or so entries, we have also taken the time to examine the hypothetical, in the form of the war plans that various nations – Ireland, Britain, Germany – came up with when it came to potential military operations in Ireland. Some of these were almost the realm of fantasy, such as the IRA’s Plan Kathleen. Some contained levels of detail that were impressive, but lacked an amount of planning to really give a picture of what a war in Ireland would have looked like, like Germany’s Operation Green. And some, such as Britain’s Plan W, paint a grim picture of a sustained campaign on Irish soil, the aftermath of which might have left the geopolitical picture on the island looking very different. It is its own kind of enjoyable to look at these plans and imagine what might have been, but at the same time it is important not to go too far down the road of the counter-factual: Ireland remained on the periphery of the war, and was better off.
As for he war itself, there is little more that I can say that has not already been said. It was an immense struggle, a war whose scope touched every corner of the globe in some way, which left old orders shattered and a great many people dead. If called upon to offer an opinion on its course I would say that the war can be defined by the territorial ambitions of the Axis powers exceeding their capability of achieving them. The Germans underestimated the resolve of the United Kingdom, the industrial power of the United States and the sheer power of the Soviet Union; Italy overestimated its own military in every respect; and the Japanese misunderstood how the course of a Pacific conflict would go once they had attacked the United States. The Allies, once the initial blows had been absorbed – and that was no easy thing of course – were on the path to an inevitable victory.
The experience of the Irish regiments was typical of many who served within the British military. Engaged in nearly every campaign that Britain itself was engaged in, from the initial assault of the German machine on the Low Countries through to the final advance through Germany itself, the named Irish regiments conducted themselves with their usual professionalism and fervour, and were critical at several moments, especially in Italy. There were dark times – like the botched Dodecanese theatre which resulted in a mass surrender – and better moments – like the advances through North Africa – but once again the Irish named regiments had proven their worth. The “Irishness”, for lack of a better term, of these units was continuing to erode bit-by-bit, becoming more about symbolism than actual manpower, but in the Second World War at least there remained a substantial Irish presence in the ranks and even in the officer corps of these regiments.
Ireland’s military history will never be defined by the Second World War as it has been by other conflicts fought on other shores, such as the English Civil Wars, the French Revolutionary Wars or the First World War, but that does not mean that it was not critical in many crucial respects. By the end of the conflict many important things had happened as a consequence of the fighting and of Ireland’s neutrality; a certain state of isolation diplomatically; the continuation of the now long-running Fianna Fail government; the (temporary) neutering of the IRA; a growing economic crisis; and if anything a solidification of partition, with Northern Ireland celebrating its role as an active belligerent on the winners side. The post-war years were going to be difficult in many respects, bringing with them political change, a resurgence of paramilitary activity and the beginning of the road that led inexorably towards the Troubles.
We will take a break for a week, but then we will return with a look at the immediate post-war environment for Ireland.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
I agree with you not to go too far down the road of “counter factual” – too many historians of the period get excited about a file here or a telegram there which indicate contact with the Allies but at the end of the day Ireland was a distant postscript in the story of the war.
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